Obama News Conference Analyzed

President Obama held a prime-time news conference Wednesday to review his 100 days in office and look ahead. E.J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post and a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, and Dorothy Rabinowitz, columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a member of its editorial board, offer their insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, two views of the president's news conference - and his first 100 days, for that matter. Joining me are, first in the studio, columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. He's also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

How are you doing?

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, Washington Post; Senior fellow, Brookings Institution): Good. I'm enchanted and humbled to be here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And joining us from New York City by phone is Dorothy Rabinowitz, columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a member of the Journal's editorial board.

Welcome once again.

Ms. DOROTHY RABINOWITZ (The Wall Street Journal): Thanks.

SIEGEL: E.J. first. What struck you here?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, what struck me most, more than any specific was stylistic. I think that the best use of the classic cool, reassuring Obama style came when he was asked about the flu. And he has to walk a very careful line there because he has to reassure people that he's on top of this and he takes it seriously, but he doesn't want to panic people. And that's exactly what he said. He said it was a cause for deep concern but not panic. And if the main remedy is you've got to wash your hands a lot, maybe people shouldn't worry quite so much as they're worried now.

Secondly, I was struck by, once again, this very deliberate style in answering questions. He gives long answers in what's supposed to be a soundbite age. And he talked at one point about coaxing folks. And I think the whole style here is to appear again and again to reassure people and to coax them. And he's still selling this new foundation as his version of the New Deal. It's innovative, but also quite conservative. There's not a lot of glitter in it. I think it has too many syllables to stick the way the New Deal did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: But it's - we're not building on a pile of sand, though, when we rebuild.

Mr. DIONNE: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Dorothy Rabinowitz, were you reassured? Did you hear reassurance in the news conference?

Ms. RABINOWITZ: Well, I heard reassuring. But let's not underestimate the power of that off-the-wall question, which I thought was one of the two most revealing answers Obama gave. You can imagine what, let's say, Jack Kennedy or any other president of recent memory would have said to a question like that. They'd have had fun. This showed an Obama who is an intensely serious man. And this is not in any way unappealing. He went at it like a student and he earnestly and in many ways appealingly answered every one of those questions. I know that Bill Clinton would've said, the thing that surprised me was how hard it is to have a cheeseburger and stuff, like that.

SIEGEL: Nothing that flippant. He was very earnest in his response to that.

Ms. RABINOWITZ: Very earnest.

SIEGEL: What, by the way, did you think was the other most interesting and revealing answer?

Ms. RABINOWITZ: Well, the other interesting thing was to watch him confront those questions about the torture memo. And after all the trouble that has emerged from his release of those memos, he maintains the same strange view in the face of all the searing reality that is now creeping out in the consciousness of many people, many journalists, even those on the left, that terrorists really do not care about whether we give up our terror - alleged terrorist techniques.

It happened that we had the bombing of the Cole, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, an immense series of terrorist attacks long before anybody ever heard of enhanced interrogation techniques. And the notion that we are going to induce terrorists to care more about us because we're giving up these techniques...

SIEGEL: He said it would cease to be a recruiting tool...

Ms. RABINOWITZ: Indeed.

SIEGEL: ...because it's blackened the U.S. reputation.

Ms. RABINOWITZ: This notion, which he keeps repeating, is just extraordinary.

SIEGEL: In his last answer, E.J., when he was asked about what kind of a stockholder the U.S. would be, since the U.S. is now a major stockholder in banks, soon to be in auto companies, there was a line that he had, which is so, look, I don't want to run auto companies. I don't want to run banks. I have two wars to run. But these are unique circumstances. And the president presents himself, to a great extent, as a victim of circumstances. This is what - this is the lot he has inherited.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. He has to ride like the wind just to stay ahead of these problems. And I was very struck by that answer, as well, because these things become not something about ideology for him. He doesn't want a government takeover of industry even though the government now happens to own a bunch of very big banks and it happens to own two auto companies.

He said he wants to get out of this business as quickly as possible. He said he wants to find willing buyers for these companies after he innovates. And I think it's an interesting kind of mix. On the one hand, he clearly is a progressive in his politics. I was also struck on an earlier answer when he said the unions have made enormous sacrifices on top of the sacrifices they have already made.

He clearly sides with the unions. But he wants everyone to understand this not as an ideological effort, but the things he has to do, the practical things he has to do to fix the country.

SIEGEL: So the image is of someone, Dorothy, who says, I'm here, I'm a leader. I'm trying to do the best job I can. I'm bringing my values, but I'm confronted with all of these things not of my making. He's still the president who has -things are on his desk, and they've been there since he became president.

Ms. RABINOWITZ: Well, he is confronted with these things. He is confronted with the war on terror. He is confronted with the terror techniques. He is confronted with the need to uphold these moral abstractions in the face of the reality that we face and the dangers. And this is not easy. But he reverts to the leader he is himself. He reverts to that rhetorical style in which, you know, he falls back on we are the best people because he believe in our principles.

Well, huge numbers of Americans understand that if there are ways to avoid a second wave of attacks, and we had to extract this information, we would not be expecting American leaders to say, hey, wait a minute. Let's just see if we can get this stuff in a very much more decent way. I mean it took 144 waterboardings to get little - to get some crucial information...

SIEGEL: Although there's also - we have disputes as to exactly what was uttered when.

Ms. RABINOWITZ: Yeah.

SIEGEL: One last point here. And E.J., well, I guess we don't have enough time to hear from you on it. But the president said that when he was asked about the state of the Republican Party given Arlen Specter's leaving it, he said, I never think things are as good as they seem or as bad as they seem. I was 30 points back in the presidential race not too long ago. So he was not being very triumphant about the woes of his rivals.

Mr. DIONNE: No. And that's a very good idea when you're this far from an election. Skip Roberts, an official of one of the labor unions, said that maybe the Republicans are the next institution to be nationalized, the Republican National Committee, because their business model isn't working.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne and Dorothy Rabinowitz, thank to both - thanks to both of you.

Ms. RABINOWITZ: Thanks.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Ms. RABINOWITZ: Bye.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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